CHRIST IN WINTER: Reflections on Faith and Life for the Years of Winter…
We had supper with Paul and Judith Unger on our way to the memorial service for Wally Mead. It was Paul who shocked me a couple of years ago when he said, “Community doesn’t last.”
I have always thought about community in transcendent terms, “the great cloud of witnesses,” “for all the saints.” So the idea of community “not lasting” bothered me. That spiritual community does last, but it is a spiritual, not a physical community. Paul is right, though, about physical community, community in this world. It does not last.
Wally Mead is proof of that. He was the last of the great coterie of young professors with their new PhDs who came to Illinois State Teachers College in the 1960s to turn it into Illinois State University. At the same time, a line of bright you new seminary graduates came to pastor in Normal. The ILSU teachers and the Normal preachers were a community of ideas and challenge and progress. Wally was the last one left of that once-full community. His memorial service closed the circle. It was a wonderful community, but like all human communities, it could not last.
It is not just community that does not last. Also fast disappears the habitats where those communities dwelt. Gone entirely are the hospital where I was born; the farm where I grew up, house and all the buildings strip-mined; almost all the commercial buildings on both sides of the two blocks of Main Street in my home town; my university dorm; the parsonage where we lived when first married; five of the church buildings where I preached… if I had to show you a trail of my habitats to prove my identity, you would have to conclude that I do not exist.
Yet, here I am. It will be but a few years before I “age out,” and then, like all community and habitat, I’ll be gone. That is the way of the world. But—and here I am going to say something you may not have ever heard before: I am glad I got to be a human being in this transient world, that humans were my community.
All life is born, and lives, and then dies. Red geraniums and dandelions and army ants and baboons and algae and evergreens and swans and Presbyterians are all the same, in that way of transiency. We are also all the same in not knowing why this world exists at all, or why we are all destined to die. But even with all the problems and stupidities and pains to which humans are prone, I think being a human is a good thing. I’m sure that being a sea horse or a dragonfly or a Shetland pony is a good thing, too, but—all in all—I’d rather be a human.
When we come to the end, we either ignore death, or we rage against it, or try to avoid it, or we resign ourselves to it… or we accept it. Acceptance of death, acceptance of the mystery, is best, and that is something humans can do better, if we’re willing, than toads and sassafras can. Or even owls.
“All we ask [in old age] is to be allowed to remain the authors of our own story.” Atul Gawande, Being Mortal, p. 140.
I stopped writing this column for a while, for several reasons. It wasn’t until I had quit, though, that I knew this reason: I did not want to be responsible for wasting your time. If I write for others, I have to think about whether it’s worthwhile for you to read. If I write only for myself, it’s caveat emptor. If you choose to read something I have written, but I have not advertised it, not asked you to read it, and it’s poorly constructed navel-gazing drivel, well, it’s your own fault. Still, I apologize if you have to ask yourself, “Why did I waste time reading this?”